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Autonomous Roboracing

Updated: Oct 21, 2019

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Four years into the series, electric racing in Formula E is proving more and more of a hit. For next year, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche will be joining Audi, Renault, and Jaguar in the series. Some will be dumping racing efforts in other championships to be able to focus on Formula E, like Mercedes will be doing with DTM.

Exchanging combustion engines for electric motors and batteries apparently worked. But what if the world had racing series where electric cars would race against one another with no driver behind the wheel? Would autonomous electric racing stick just as well? The thought of having cars with no drivers race one another burst into the head of Daniel Simon, the man behind vehicular designs in movies like Tron: Legacy, Oblivion or Captain America.

He envisioned what he calls Roborace as an extreme motor-sport and entertainment platform for “the future of road relevant technologies.” In words we can all understand, a racing series meant for self-driving cars.

Just like in Formula E, all ten teams that are to take part in the series will field two examples of the same vehicle and would compete on various city circuits in one-hour races.

The car used in Roboracing is named Robocar and will be the same for all teams involved. Each of the team will have the right to develop its own algorithms and artificial intelligence systems that would give them an edge over the competition.

The Robocar has been designed by Simon himself and is 4.8 meters long and 2 meters wide. It has no cockpit, obviously, and weighs only 1,000 kg. Four electric motors spinning the wheels, each developing 300kW, and a battery pack good for 540kW would make up the heart of the car. With this hardware and its 1,200 Nm of torque, the machine is supposed to reach a top speed of 322 km/h.

The brain of the car is a pair of Nvidia Drive PX2 artificial intelligence platforms. The two uses 15 ultrasonic sensors, six cameras, five LIDAR and two radar systems to determine the car’s position which help decide on the course to follow.

Robocar is nothing but a concept for the moment. To make it a reality, Simon is using a “test bot” called DevBot to ensure everything works properly. Unlike the Robocar, the DevBot is fitted with a cabin, allowing for a human driver to get behind the wheel of the car and test it properly.

The most recent outing of the DevBot took place earlier in May on the street circuit of Formula E Rome. At the time, the machine was pitted against pro-drifter Ryan Tuerck.

In the first run, Tuerck sat behind the wheel of the DevBot and drove it along the track. To determine whether the human or the AI was better, the racer then stepped out and the car was sent along the same route on its own. The winner of the race was of course the human, who managed to beat the autonomous system by 26 seconds on a lap. In racing that is an enormous difference.

Earlier in 2017, two DevBots raced each other ahead of the Buenos Aires ePrix. As if in a movie scenario, a dog entered the track and was avoided by one of the cars, but the second one didn’t perform as well, crashing into a corner.

Initially, the first race in the Roborace series should have taken place during the 2016-2017 Formula E season, but at the time the idea fell through. Fortunately, this past summer, the much-anticipated event took place on the Hillclimb Goodwood Festival of Speed where the successful first ever course of an autonomous car in competition took place.

As the company behind the car is still struggling to make the racing series for autonomous cars a reality, it keeps on releasing information about the how’s and why’s of the Robocar to demonstrate the world their determination and showcase this technology as it really is.

The Robocars, as well as the test mules named DevBots, are being assembled at a facility in Banbury, north of London.

For the first time, the company provided the world a glimpse of the facility where the cars are being designed and built. You can experience how the 45,000 square foot former F1 facility has been reshaped to accommodate Roborace in the video attached below.

Having self-driving cars race each other might not be as exciting for the spectators; however, it might prove gold for automakers. Most of those accepting to enter Formula E have made no secret of the fact that they use the series to develop electric technologies for the production cars they make.

Since a host of car makers in Formula E are also involved in creating autonomous vehicles, having a new way to test such technologies might draw some interest.

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